Balfour, North Dakota
Highway 84 cuts a diagonal line across central North Dakota, a landscape of wheat. It’s a lonely road, two lanes stringing together a handful of farm towns small enough to come and go in the space of a sentence. Velva. Voltaire. Bergen. Now Balfour. As I drive I’m looking for something to eat but in vain, and not just because it’s Sunday morning. At Balfour there seems to be hope in the form of a roadside café, in front of which a big sign calls TRUCK STOP. Closer up, though, I see in the parking lot what has unintentionally become a sad joke: three trucks “stopped” here years ago and now rusting their way back into the earth. I’ll bet the café has been closed for twenty years.
A few houses here are still lived in, but mostly Balfour appears to be closed. Next to the café, a cottage has been swallowed up by the bushes that once formed its hedge. Across the highway on the railroad tracks sit eight empty cars, graffiti spreading across them like cobwebs. Beside the tracks is a collection of abandoned tractors. In the stillness, fluffy seed heads of Canada thistle drift up and then down, tracing the soft curves of the air.
What caught my eye, the reason I pulled over and got out of the car, is an old, wood-shingled church. Built probably in the 1920s, it’s a strangely huge building: two stories inside with a third-story bell tower, itself crowned with a steeple that reaches another fifteen feet into the air. At the very top is a delicate wooden cross, backlit by the sun. I soften my eyes to blur the massive building back to some former grandeur. But as my focus returns, I see its white paint peeling off like old skin, and weedy wormwood grown over its path. I see on the building’s front the words for sale spray-painted in red beside a phone number with an area code from North Carolina.
As I stand looking at the silent church, a convoy of trucks surges down the highway. According to the names on their cabs they normally transport ag equipment, but today they’re hauling out the carnival from the state fair, which closed last night. Blowing down the road comes a candy-colored coupon booth on its side in the back of a flatbed, then a blue-and-lavender kiddie ride broken down to its clanking pieces, then a grown-up ride in red, with flames down its flanks and its outline marked by orange light bulbs. The colors stream through town at fifty miles an hour.
Wind kicked up by the trucks sends the thistle seed-puffs reeling, their slow dance suddenly plunging and pointed. Watching them, it hits me that the truckers with their blurred faces are the only humans I have seen since I pulled over to look at this place. Of course I know that people live in Balfour; the census says there’s a population of twenty, at least as of the year 2000. This town is not dead. What it is is empty. I get in my car and soon I leave, too.
Balfour should be a surprise to no one. In fact, this emptiness is what we’ve come to expect from farm towns. To those of us passing through, this landscape is not supposed to be about people. It is about wheat as far as the eye can see; or in Iowa, corn for miles on end; or in Texas, such endless cotton that in fall the roadsides turn white as if dusted with snow. We know that things used to be different—that in 1950 there were 162 people living in Balfour; that six days a week there were farmers in those fields and that on Sunday mornings the church was so full that the building didn’t seem oversized at all.
But we also know those days are gone. The way things work now, with industrialization and consolidation and combines navigated by GPS, agriculture doesn’t really need people anymore—at least not like it used to. As we have mathematized food production, we have reduced its pieces to numbers and its processes to calculations; humans have become mere inputs, useful only when applied efficiently in relation to the outputs they create. Of all those people once filling the church at Balfour, conventional agriculture needs only the handful in the front row. The rest are fat to be trimmed.